Schwezigon Pagoda

I can see the golden spire rising above the trees, so I know I’m going the right way, but I’m also passing by an odd building to my right. It’s long, narrow, columned, and ignored. A sign reads, “No shoes allowed inside.” I take my sandals off and enter. It’s a stone walkway stretching to near infinity, with glowing light from either side, and a lone man sweeping. A photo just waiting to happen. I snap off 20 or so shots with the man in different places and poses. My first instinct was to have him in the center, but I suspect his shape will show up better to one side.

Walk past the sweeper down the causeway. Near the end I hear children’s voices shouting behind me. A boy on a bike being chased by his younger brother. Another photo op. Ready, aim, I get the shot. But out of focus. It’s too bad, because though I didn’t realize it at the time, this shot would have meant a lot to me.

The causeway turns into a bazaar. The grey pillars giving way to multicolored merchandise. If there stuff covering the bland looking rafters I’d hang out a bit longer to see if someone interesting walked down the aisle. But it’s just a click and go…

The causeway leads into Schwezigon Pagada grounds, and as promised it’s big and gold, but the light is very flat and boring. I take a picture of it anyways. Yawn.

Maybe I can frame it in a more interesting way from one of the surrounding buildings? I can, but, well, it’s still not all that interesting. Hmm, what else is there around here?

Some young ladies in pink dresses strike bells with logs. That’s kind of cool, and I could call the photo “Belles,” but the background is too distracting for the photo to be any good. Maybe I could compose it better, but the Belles are already on their way. No do-over.

There are numerous side buildings surrounding the pagoda, and each is a little different. Like this baby blue room with a standing Buddha. It’s a very pleasing place to be, but not a great photo. Funny how often that happens, but I can’t quite explain why.

Unlike the other rooms, this one with red pillars has no central sculpture, no focal point, and I take that as an opportunity. It would be cool if a monk walked through that door at the end. Or if a cat walked across the floor, or a bird flew through,or a child chased a ball, or something happened in here. I wait a few minutes with camera ready, but nothing happens. Okay, maybe I need to ‘make’ something happen. Hmm, I wonder where those Belles by the bells went? Long gone.

People walk by, but most uninteresting. I need either someone young or old, and preferably wearing bright solid colors. But most of all I need someone agreeable to posing for a photo, which is not exactly easy to establish, since I speak zero Burmese.

A little sun peaks through the clouds, making the pagoda gleam. I take a photo. Looks better than before, but my focus is on procuring a model for the red pillared room. My technique is stand around and smile at people. It takes awhile, but eventually a forty-ish man says, “Good evening.”

He wants to practice his English and I oblige. Along with him are his family, including two girls in purple dresses. I ask the man if it would be okay for me to take a photo of his daughters. It’s not okay. Not okay at all. The guy looks at me like I’m some sort of sicko and leaves. Great, thats. just. great. I give up. Go for a walk around the pagoda. It’s still there, big and gold.

Back to loitering outside the red pillared room. I’m kept company by a homeless beggar, who I do not consider a photo candidate, and prefer to keep downwind of me. Other people pass, including an old woman with a pink shawl that would be good, but I’m powerless to break the communication barrier.

Just when I’m ready to give up for good, an sixty-ish man says, “Good evening.” He is followed by a dozen young women in colorful dresses. I think I just won the photographer’s lottery. He wants to practice his English. It turns out he is an English teacher and the girls are his class on a field trip.

I’m talking to the guy, but all I’m thinking is how to get my photo. Apparently asking to take a photo of one person is “weird,” so to break the ice I say, “Can I take a photo of your class all together?”

That is no problem at all, and the girls dutifully line up. I take their picture. I probably should have put more care into it, but all I’m thinking about is my next question…

I ask the guy, “Can I take a photo of just one student in this room over here?” The guy looks at me in disbelief. Confused. Like, “Why would you want to do that?” 

The true answer is, “Because I’m a friggin artist you nitwit, and I’m trying to make something interesting, now nod your head and obey.” But I suspect the truth is not going to help me here, so I beg instead. He agrees. I scan down the row of students. Near the end is a homely girl in a solid pink dress. The pink dress wins. “I’ll take her.”

The guy explains what’s happening to the girls and there is much fuss. Something I didn’t notice until later, is that the girl in the pink dress does not appear in the group photo, either too shy or socially excluded from doing so. But now she is very much at the center of attention and not at all used to it. The only reason she is doing it is because teacher said so. I’m sorry for that, but here we go…

I point out where I want her to stand, drawing a circle with my finger around a particular white square in the tiled floor. Her classmates look on from the left. Because they are looking on, other people are curious to see what is happening, and soon there are 30 people looking on. They crowd into my shot and I have to shoo them away with my arm.

The girl in pink stands ram-rod straight on the white square. Not exactly what I had in mind, but in a room filled with red pillars, she is also a red pillar, so I guess it works. I aim and take the shot. She hears the camera click and walks off. Relieved that her duty is over, eager to return to the comfort of anonymity. 

I look down at the shot and dammit. It’s not in focus. But there isn’t going to be a do-over. It is what it is. Not the greatest shot ever, but it is “interesting” and unique, one that won’t be repeated any time soon. Good enough.

The girl in pink is back in the crowd, and now a celebrity, the girl everyone wants to talk to. What was it like? Was it fun? Were you nervous? Why did he pick you? The girl who was nobody is now somebody, and though my camera was not needed to make it so, if it helped point it out I am glad. The girl in pink looks back at me over her shoulder and smiles. If it was a thank you, I accept. 

And I thank you too young lady.

The light has improved around the pagoda. We’re into “blue hour,” or in the tropics, “blue 10 minutes,” when the sky is at maximum color. I take another pagoda shot and it’s not bad, but neither is it “interesting.” There’s no story to it. It needs something to make this sacred place look sacred, like some monks or something, but where are the frigging monks when you need them?

Off in another side building, I find a strange set of sculptures. Starving men. They are unlike any Buddhist art I’ve ever seen before, and I’m not sure their purpose or meaning. They look weird. And by the number of people who walk by this building without so much as a passing glance, they are looked upon seldom. But the combination of colors and patterns are visually dazzling, if a little spooky, and deserves a click.

Back outside, the monks have arrived. Are they doing solemn, holy, monk like things? Nope. They’re posing for photos and taking selfies like everyone else. But nevermind that, I’m in monk hunting mode. I follow them around discretely. Keeping a watchful eye for a pleasing composition, and taking the photos as they come to me.

I liked this monks at the temple with a 21st Century twist. The monk who appears to be opening the gate, is in fact sending a text message, while his partner staring up in ancient awe, is brought back to the present by his iPhone. He wields it like a light-saber, “Help me Obi-Wan-Ke-Buddha…”

Well, I don’t think I’m going to get any better tonight, with the light fading fast, it’s time to mosey back to town for some food…

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